Social Security: All Trust and No Fund

Posted: Jan 03, 2005 12:00 AM

Everyone wants to retire at 50. Well, I?ve got a plan that will allow me to do just that. You might want to write this down and try it yourself.

First, determine how much money you?ll need to live on in 2018. In my case, the house should be almost paid for and the children should be almost out of it. Inflation is a wild card, but I assumed that $50,000 would be enough to see me comfortably through the year. After all, I want to have enough to travel and enjoy myself. So I wrote myself an I.O.U.

?Dear Rich: I promise to pay you the sum of $50,000 on Jan. 1, 2018.
(signed) Rich Tucker.?

That piece of paper is now stored in a safe, along with other vital documents (passports, house deed, car title). I?ll do the same thing once a year each year until 2018. This plan should carry me comfortably through 2032.

There. Retirement planned for.

Of course, I?m no fool. I?m already anticipating that the cost of living is going to go up every year. So, every year from now on, I?ll add a generous cost of living increase to my annual I.O.U. Say, $2,000 per year. So next year, when I write myself a note for Jan. 1, 2019, it?ll be for $52,000. And so on until I actually retire.

See any problems with my scheme? It really seems flawless. After all, I wouldn?t lie to myself. If I?ve vowed to pay myself $50,000, well, I?m going to do it. No matter how hard or long I have to work in 2018 to earn that retirement money.

This is exactly how the U.S. government is preparing for everyone?s retirement. Social Security is the national retirement plan. But, starting in 2018, there?s nothing there but I.O.U.s.

That?s probably not what you?ve heard. Various reports claim Social Security is safe and secure. In their annual report this year, the program?s trustees insisted it would be able to pay benefits through 2042. A recent Congressional Budget Office report is even more optimistic. It says Social Security is solid through 2052.

But these reports pretend there is money in the Social Security trust fund, which actually is all trust and no fund.

The fact is, Social Security is ?pay as you go.? It always has been. That means it relies on today?s taxpayers to pay today?s benefits. Which works well as long as there are more taxpayers than beneficiaries. Indeed, for years we?ve been taking in more than we?ve been paying out. The extra money is supposed to go into that trust fund. It doesn?t.

Instead, the Treasury spends the difference on roads, sex-education programs, parks and whatever else the federal government buys. The trust fund gets an I.O.U., which is stored in a fireproof safe to be made good some day with future tax money.

But starting in 2018 the math changes. The system will owe more in benefits than it will collect in taxes. Heritage Foundation Social Security expert David John estimates ?annual deficits will exceed $100 billion within about five years, $200 billion after about ten years, and $300 billion after about fifteen years.?

Again, those who claim Social Security is solvent rely on the trust fund, which supposedly has enough money to make up those deficits until 2032 or 2042 or whenever. But the trust fund is like my $50,000 I.O.U. It?s a promise with no money attached. If we really intend to pay Social Security benefits in, say, 2025, we?ll have to take lots of money out of general tax revenues to do so. That will mean higher taxes, less spending on other government programs, or both.

We can fix this, if we want to.

Anyone who owns an IRA or 401(k) understands the beauty of compound interest. Even after the shellacking the market took a couple of years ago, almost everyone has more money in his or her account than was actually put there. Let?s create and fund personal retirement accounts (PRAs) within Social Security, so workers will have real money at retirement.

After all, if we allow average-income workers to set aside about 5 percent of their Social Security taxes in PRAs, the government projects the system will be solvent through at least 2077, without a reduction in benefits.

But we?ve got to get started. The closer we get to 2018, the tougher it will be for future retirees to build up real wealth.

There?s a clear choice. We can either plan now, or pass the I.O.U. on to our children and grandchildren. And, like my scheme outlined above, passing the buck isn?t a plan. It?s a punt.